‘Locked and loaded’: Trump’s op­tions in a war with N. Korea

Pen­tagon’s plans for es­ca­la­tion have been in place since 1953

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Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted Fri­day that U.S. mil­i­tary plans are “locked and loaded” and ready to go “should North Korea act un­wisely.” In fact, the Pen­tagon has had de­tailed plans in place for an­other con­flict since the first Korean War ended in 1953.

“The mil­i­tary has planned for the worst case for decades,” said David Maxwell, the as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies and a re­tired Army colonel who served five tours in South Korea.

While the Pen­tagon never reveals its plans and the many updates it has made over the past 64 years, an­a­lysts say there are sev­eral broad op­tions:

The United States might ini­tially try to de­stroy North Korea’s nu­clear weapons and mis­siles in a first strike, but any ac­tion could eas­ily es­ca­late into a ground, air and sea war that would lead to tens of thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties — even mil­lions if nu­clear weapons were used.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has said a war on the Korean Penin­sula would be “cat­a­strophic,” which is why he said the main fo­cus re­mains on diplo­macy to curb North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

If the U.S. mil­i­tary were to strike first, it might tar­get North Korea’s mis­sile sites and nu­clear pro­cess­ing plants. The prob­lem: U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies might not know where all of them are, and some could be in hard­ened bunkers, Maxwell said.

The United States might also at­tempt a more lim­ited strike on rail­road lines or ports that would send a mes­sage, said Dean Cheng, an an­a­lyst at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

An­other lim­ited op­tion would be a cy­ber strike that could take down the coun­try’s power grid.

North Korea could dev­as­tate South Korea with an ar­ray of con­ven­tional ar­tillery and rock­ets fired from just north of the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone sep­a­rat­ing the two and aimed at Seoul — South Korea’s cap­i­tal.

The U.S. and its South Korean al­lies would try to de­stroy those weapons as soon as it be­came clear Seoul might be threat­ened. That would likely re­quire U.S. and South Korean air­craft plus cruise mis­siles fired from Amer­i­can ships.

Any large con­flict on the Korean Penin­sula would draw in ground forces. It’s a for­mi­da­ble place to fight, with moun­tains, dense woods, and pop­u­lated cities and towns. Win­ters can be bru­tally cold in the moun­tains.

The United States has about 28,000 ser­vice mem­bers based in South Korea and could de­ploy thou­sands more.

The bulk of the ground force, how­ever would be South Korean, Maxwell said. The South Kore­ans have a mil­i­tary of about 650,000 and can mo­bi­lize more than 1 mil­lion.

They are gen­er­ally bet­ter trained and equipped than the larger North Korean mil­i­tary, which has 1.2 mil­lion in its ac­tive force, one of the world’s largest.

Fight­ing that in­volves in­fantry and tanks is hard to pre­dict, but it surely would be bru­tal and bloody. Mil­lions of civil­ians would be at risk.

U.S. ships might par­tic­i­pate in a block­ade of North Korea to fur­ther iso­late the coun­try in event of war and pre­vent it from im­port­ing weapons and sup­plies.

But a block­ade might anger China, North Korea’s clos­est ally and largest trad­ing part­ner. Dur­ing the 1950-53 Korean War, China en­tered on the side of North Korea, help­ing to push back U.S. and South Korean forces at a crit­i­cal point.

It’s not clear China would get in­volved this time. It prefers to avoid a war on the penin­sula al­to­gether and would be re­luc­tant to help North Korea un­less Bei­jing thought its own bor­ders were threat­ened.

Trump al­most cer­tainly would not go nu­clear in a pre-emp­tive move.

“The U.S. is very anx­ious to avoid the first use of nu­clear weapons,” said Bruce Ben­nett, an an­a­lyst at RAND Corp.

But if North Korea were to at­tack a re­gional ally with a nu­clear weapon, Trump could or­der a re­tal­ia­tory nu­clear strike with­out prior ap­proval from Congress.

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